To Save the Apples We Love Today, We Need to Save Their Ancient Ancestors

Apples aren’t set to cope with our changing world. To help them, first we’ll need to protect the past

Pål Alvsaker

To adapt to climate change, as it squeezes all life on Earth, organisms will need to dig into their genes in order to cope with conditions that neither they, nor their ancestors, have experienced in a long, long time, if ever. But in crop plants, whose genomes have been squished and streamlined by domestication, these genes may be gone. This is largely the case for most of the world's apples, says Josie Glausiusz for National Geographic.

Like dogs, apples have been genetically molded by human hands. Farmers have picked and chose, highlighting traits and suppressing others to create highly uniform crops with different tastes, textures and colors. “But in the process many traits that might still be valuable—genes for disease resistance, say, or heat tolerance—were left behind,” says Glausiusz.

There are roughly 3,000 species of apple in the world, yet farmers tend to grow just 15 of these. And as conditions change these domesticated breeds may not be able to keep up. So to save our crops, Glausiusz says, scientists are turning to the past.

The ancient ancestors of modern apples are still around, and one of the most important species, Malus sieversii, grows in Kyrgyzstan. The genetic diversity seen in Malus sieversii is staggering compared to domesticated apples, says Glausiusz, and scientists are hoping that this tree, along with other ancestral apple trees, will be able to supply genes that can be cross-bred or engineered into our domesticated apples to help them thrive.

In her National Geographic storyGlausiusz explores some of the efforts being made around the world to save these species. As with many species not fished, farmed or grown deliberately, Malus sieversii and other ancestral apple species are threatened by extinction. Domesticated apples' future depends on our ability to protect their lineage.